The Effects of the High School Experience on the Civic and Political Participation of College Students

by Natalie Butler

Between the 1970s and now, voter turnout among 18 to 24 year olds dropped steadily, and at a greater rate than older Americans. Turnout for the presidential elections in 2000, and to a greater extent in 2004 and especially 2008, increased, but young people still did not vote at levels comparable to older Americans. Most recently, during the midterm elections of 2010, young people represented 11% of all voters, compared to 12% of voters in 2006 and 11% in 2002. Although the rates of youth participation have recently increased, young people are still not voting at rates as high as their older counterparts, no matter which election one examines. At the same time, many states are cutting back on civic education requirements and changing curriculum in ways that put civic education at a disadvantage. With classes being taught to satisfy stringent requirements and often with standardized tests in mind, how can civics and government classes in high schools be best used to teach young people about our government and civic participation?

Why do young people vote or not? The goal of my thesis is to better understand how the high school experience affects the civic and political engagement of college students. I looked at different methods of teaching high school government, civics, and history classes to see if there are any commonalities among the high school experiences of voting students and non-voting students. I wanted to know if the high school classroom experience plays a role in how engaged a student will be once they are at a university. First, a discussion of other research evaluates the state of current civic education and participation among young people. Then, my research is discussed, which was conducted in one-on-one interviews.

The methods of instruction, the levels of participation and experiential learning, the role of current events and news, and the overall quality of the instructor and the course are evaluated. This project concludes with an analysis of findings, and recommendations for teaching civic education.

At the end of the project, I concluded the following: government and civics classes in America’s high schools can have an impact on youth voting habits and attitudes toward civic engagement. Using experiential learning techniques in the classroom, engaging parents, making issues relevant and relatable to young people, and practicing mock elections were some of the most promising practices that helped young people feel a sense of efficacy.

There are many other factors, such as family voting history and demographic indicators that play a large role in determining how someone engages with their community, but the classroom can be a tool to help create a class of involved citizens.